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What The Atlantic doesn’t understand about the priesthood

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It should not surprise anyone to discover wickedness among the ranks of the Catholic priesthood. Everyone with a modicum of self-awareness already knows that wickedness is endemic to the human condition. For most of us, it is as easy to be selfish, angry, lustful or power-hungry as it is simply to be – a disposition toward evil seems our perpetual condition, and acting on that disposition seems to come rather naturally.

Nor should any of us be surprised by systemic injustice, inequity, self-protection or ineptitude among the Church’s leadership. Anyone who has spent time in human communities knows that they are quickly given over to gossip, backbiting, power struggles and self-protection. Our species is not a natural meritocracy, much less any kind of virtue-cracy. Most of us realise that occupying a position of leadership is no guarantee of suitability for leadership – our experience teaches us quite the contrary, in fact.

The Catholic Church does not deny these realities. It is in fact predicated upon them. The fundamental premise of the Catholic religion is that man is fallen, and that no amount of effort on his part is, by itself, sufficient to rise completely beyond our own wickedness. Catholicism is predicated on the idea that humanity has need of a Saviour to rise from a muck of our own making, and that no mere mortal is suitable for the task.

“Abolish the Priesthood”, James Carroll’s essay in June’s issue of The Atlantic, seems to miss this. In a work of historical revisionism worthy of the late Howard Zinn, Carroll offers a tired version of the Catholic Church’s history, in which the problem is not human sinfulness but class warfare, oppression of the people by the oligarchs, and the abandonment of the Gospel’s message by history’s most clichéd villains: celibate men.

Of course, to make his history work, Carroll has to discard inconvenient facts, ignoring the role of Catholic doctrine in 2,000 years of combating misogyny, affirming the dignity of the poor and standing in solidarity with the oppressed. Carroll has to weave fact with fiction to make of the Church’s sacramental priesthood a uniformly wicked force of coercion, domination and oppression.

In Carroll’s alternative history, overthrowing or abandoning the Church’s clerical class will lead to a flourishing of equality, generosity, peace and harmony. Anyone who thinks this sounds plausible should pick up an account of the French Revolution or a memoir of life in the Eastern Bloc. Anyone who thinks that banishing the Church’s clerical class will lead to greater Christian unity should review the history of five centuries of Protestantism.

The problem with Carroll’s view is that it locates sin only in one class of persons. It forgets how deeply sin has nestled itself into every single human heart. It also forgets the antidote to sin.

If we want to reform the Church – and all of us should – we can’t hope to do so without the grace mediated to us through the sacramental priesthood. The priest who offers Christ’s sacrifice at the altar is not de facto more virtuous than the rest of us, more wise or less sinful. But he is set apart. He is singularly focused on offering the sacrifice of the Saviour, who can set us free from sin. He mediates the grace of that sacrifice in Confession. He initiates us into the mysteries, and he dispenses them – not because he is better than the rest of us, but because Christ has set him apart for our sake.

The priest – young or old, liberal or conservative, holy or mired in sin – offers in his ministry a bridge between our fallen humanity and Christ’s resurrected glory. The grace of the sacrifice offered by priests is the key to liberation from our real oppression, which is borne of sin.

We should hope, and work, for reform in the Church. We should root out clericalism. We should punish abuse and coercion. We should recognise personal and structural sin, call its perpetrators to account, and work for something better. But we can only do that by grace.

Abandon the priesthood of Jesus Christ? Only if we are ready to abandon our hope.

JD Flynn is the editor-in-chief, of the Catholic News Agency